In this striking, formally rigorous drama, the director Ricky D’Ambrose revisits his Long Island childhood with restraint and tenderness.
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Toward the end of “The Cathedral,” a movie filled with restrained feeling and shimmers of beauty, the young protagonist describes in voice-over a photograph that fills the screen. It’s an image of two of his aunts, both then young women, in a room that’s scarcely bigger than the bed they’re on. One sister, dressed in a bright red sweater and socks, is seated on it. The other sits on the floor, her upper body leaning on the bed. The women are smiling; they seem happy. “The room’s still there,” the voice-over continues, “even if the same people aren’t.”
Much like this moment, “The Cathedral” is about absence and presence, rooms and the people who inhabit them. Mostly, though, it is about Jesse, the person describing the photo, and who, over the course of this spare, precise, formally rigorous movie grows from a quiet, wide-eyed toddler into a pensive, watchful teenager. In its sweep, Jesse’s life is unremarkable. He is born and he is loved, or at least cared for; he plays, draws pictures, goes to school, experiences death and observes the world around him. And in observing, Jesse develops a sensibility. He becomes the young man with the photo, one who can discuss — and create — art.
What distinguishes Jesse’s story is the striking way that the writer-director Ricky D’Ambrose tells it — its ellipses, voice-over, visual precision and an emotional reserve that can feel like clinical detachment but is more rightly described as an aesthetic. Set on Long Island, it opens in 1986, before Jesse’s birth, with the death of his uncle, which the family has obscured. After Jesse arrives, the movie settles into four roughly divided time frames — different performers play the character at ages 3, 9, 12 and 17 — each with ceremonies that formally mark the arc of a life and end with his graduation from high school.
Much of the story and certainly its prickliest, most demonstrative scenes involve the ties — emotional and economic — between Jesse’s parents, Richard and Lydia (Brian d’Arcy James and Monica Barbaro), and their extended families. The relationships are messy, at times petty and grim, painfully human. Richard is the font of much of the tension. He’s from a lower-middle-class family and makes an unfortunate career choice, and from the start nurses grudging resentment that he increasingly, volubly voices toward Lydia’s wealthier parents. When he demands they help pay for his and Lydia’s wedding, the marriage is already sunk.
D’Ambrose has said that the movie is autobiographical, and the story takes some wincing and revealing turns, most egregiously in the shabby treatment of Lydia’s grandmother, a frail, somewhat bewildered-looking woman whose children shuttle her around carelessly. Jesse witnesses some of what happens to her, including after she’s finally dumped in one of her daughter’s homes, where she will fade. This is clearly a crucial chapter for him, one that builds its resonant power not in tears and talk but through spare, near-hieroglyphic images.
Part of the pleasure of “The Cathedral” is how D’Ambrose plays with — and gently destabilizes — narrative conventions by drawing from different realist traditions. Although most of the main actors are working within the parameters of Hollywood-style psychological realism — their expressions, gestures and movements are recognizable, not alien — the performers playing Jesse are generally tamped down and at times look almost blank. Here, D’Ambrose seems most influenced by the French filmmaker Robert Bresson, who directed his actors (he called them “models”) to deliver minimal obvious expression. “Hide the ideas, but so that people find them,” Bresson said. “The most important will be the most hidden.”
D’Ambrose isn’t really hiding all that much. If Jesse seems enigmatic, it’s only because he’s a quiet, solitary kid; his father does plenty of talking for everyone. But the adult who Jesse becomes is evident in every image of this personal movie and in the ways D’Ambrose deploys different storytelling strategies, most notably through his use of still images, tableau staging — including a wedding dinner that evokes Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” — and the novelistic narration (delivered by Madeleine James). Here, when a fight breaks out, D’Ambrose cuts from the brawlers to a lingering shot of a broken glass, letting the angry voices fill the air.
In time, Jesse develops an interest in film. He flips through a cinema book (Alain Resnais and Jacques Demy are here but, amusingly, not Disney), and Richard buys him a video camera. Jesse shoots and shoots some more as his family falls apart. In dialogue and drama and through postcards, TV ads and news clips — a bombing, a war, a burial — a larger world comes into view. Again and again, you watch Jesse looking at this reality, taking in its beauty and ugliness. He looks at its kitsch, its vivid faces and bright colors, but he also looks at the light that flickers on the walls — and that eventually leads him to this quiet, tender movie.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes. In theaters.